Diva la Grande
By Jim DeRogatis
Turn on MTV or modern-rock radio these days and you can't escape an emaciated waif named Meredith Brooks crooning, "I'm a bitch / I'm a lover / I'm a child / I'm a mother / I'm a sinner / I'm a saint / I do not feel ashamed." No doubt she intends this cloying chorus as a statement of self-empowerment--"Take me as I am!"--but it's just as certain that the guys who program the aforementioned media outlets are getting off on hearing this walking Calvin Klein ad confess that she's a bitch, the same way they got their jollies from listening to her obvious inspiration Alanis Morissette trill about sucking some guy's Tootsie Pop at the movies.
When it comes to issuing statements of strength, individuality, and unabashed sexuality, blues belter Candye Kane outpowers Brooks, Morissette, Tracy Bonham, and the whole rest of the alt-rock sorority, primarily because she outweighs them. Kane proudly describes herself as a "fat, X-rated welfare mom from East LA"; she used to support herself and her child by posing nude for such specialized men's magazines as Plumpers and Big Women. Now that she's also a "bisexual large-size activist," she flaunts her ample charms to get your attention, then cheerfully spreads her message.
"You need a great big woman / You need a queen-size woman / You need a big-butt woman / You need a well-rounded woman / You need a great big woman to show you how to love," she declares on the opening track of Diva la Grande, her third album for the Austin-based Antone's Records. Produced by Dave Alvin of the Blasters and featuring the spirited playing of Kane's backing group, the Swingin' Armadillos, the disc is a solid collection of jump blues, Texas swing, and rockabilly. Kane's vocals range from gritty and growling on the raunchy rockers ("Gifted in the Ways of Love," "I'm In Love With a Girl") to sweeter than pecan pie on the romantic ballads ("It Should Be Rainin'"). But what keeps me coming back is the motivating, titillating nature of her lyrics and the force of her sizable personality.
The fat activist movement has been on the move in this country since the early 70s, with organizations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance fighting discrimination through initiatives like petitioning airlines to make the seats wider and boycotting TV shows that treat fat people as freaks (The Jenny Jones Show has been a favorite recent target). These groups have some valid points: fat folks are pretty much the only group left that no one has any qualms about making fun of, and Lord knows that the American media's constant emphasis on thin and svelte (more recently in the guise of "fit") has contributed to a serious collective body-image problem. But like many other joyless crusaders, the members of NAAFA define themselves--and seek special status--as victims, and that's a big fat drag.
As evidenced by sassy publications like Fat? So! and Fat Girl, "a zine for fat dykes and the women who want them," a younger, spunkier wave of activists has emerged in recent years, with a prouder, more celebratory message along the lines of, "We're here, we're heavy, get used to it!" Kane is clearly aligned with this crowd, espousing that you can be fat, jolly, and sexy--a message that needs to be heard in rock 'n' roll.
Fat pop musicians have suffered some awful indignities, most notably the assumption that they are devoid of sexuality simply because they tip the scales. From Fats Domino to Pere Ubu's David Thomas right up to John Popper of Blues Traveler, fat male singers have been portrayed as clowns rather than sexy, dangerous vocalists in the mold of, I don't know, Gavin Rossdale. (The sole exception would seem to be Barry White, a master of seduction despite his girth.) But the women have had it worse, sometimes barely being portrayed at all: Carnie Wilson of popsters Wilson Phillips and Ann Wilson of the pioneering female hard-rock band Heart have been made to hide behind flowing robes, long coats, and veils in their videos, while their thinner sisters are invariably shown romping around in bikinis. Martha Wash, the rotund R & B diva who powered hits by the C+C Music Factory, was replaced outright in the group's video by a model.
"I like to sing the virtues of the big girl because I never did see myself or women like me on the cover of Cosmo or Vanity Fair," Kane intones over the honky-tonk piano solo that concludes "You Need a Great Big Woman." "I only saw myself on the cover of Plumpers and Big Women and Hefty Mamas. But my message to you is you got to love your body, love yourself, and love everyone else's body if you get the chance. It works for me, baby. So work what you got--whether you've got a little or a lot!"
Kane works it, all right. She comes close to claiming "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" as her own with a jalapeno-flavored conjunto version that makes clear the S and M undertones Nancy Sinatra only hinted at. While Joan Osborne timidly questions what might happen if God was one of us, Kane states as gospel that "The Lord Was a Woman" (in drag, natch). But the crown jewel on Diva la Grande is the rollicking "All You Can Eat (and You Can Eat It All Night Long)," an old-fashioned risque blues romp that would make Etta James proud. "Hey, you look like a hungry Jack / You want something more / I can give you portions like you've never seen before / All you can eat and you can eat it all night long," she roars, clearly savoring the double entendre.
Best of all, not once does Kane pull her punches by suggesting that she's a bitch for throwing them. And that's why I, for one, would eat some Candye at the movies any day.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Candye Kane photo/ album cover.